ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s military showed off its wares and unveiled several defense program during the March 23 Pakistan Day Parade in the capital.

The country displayed new equipment including the Haider platform, the first locally produced, Chinese-designed VT-4 main battle tank. The tank in the parade itself was from the pilot production batch unveiled March 6 by state-owned armored fighting vehicles manufacturer Heavy Industries Taxila.

Pakistan received 300 VT-4 tanks from China under a 2017 deal that involved local production. The system’s design originates from the Al-Khalid/VT-1A that is already in service and produced by Heavy Industries Taxila.

The long-range HQ-9/P surface-to-air missile system also made an appearance for the first time. And the military brought its Fatah 2 guided multiple-launch rocket system and its medium-range Ababeel ballistic missile that carries multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.

The Chinese-supplied HQ-9/P entered service in 2021, with the parade announcer confirming it had a range of 125 kilometers (78 miles). That falls short of the 250-kilometer-range HQ-9 variants in Chinese service.

Pakistan has also announced new programs, including the PFX effort to replace the JF-17 combat aircraft. It’s 450-kilometer-range Fatah 3 is set to soon enter service, with the 700-kilometer-range Fatah 4 under development.

Justin Bronk, an aerospace expert at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, said the HQ-9 offers “shorter effective ranges, but with superior sensor performance compared to the S-300PMU-2 family of Russian [surface-to-air missiles] that they were broadly derived from.”

The weapon relies “on a family of missiles to cover various ranges,” he told Defense News, noting that “the HQ-9/P range — compared to longer-range variants — relates less to the system itself and more to which of the larger interceptor missile versions China was willing to export to Pakistan.”

Still, the military’s media branch, Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan, has previously stated the HQ-9/P significantly enhances Pakistan’s air defense architecture and is fully integrated via a digitized system.

Mansoor Ahmed, an expert on Pakistan’s nonconventional weapons programs and delivery systems, said the Ababeel missile’s presence was likely in response to India’s March 11 test of its Agni-V missile and ballistic missile defense capabilities. The Agni-V is also equipped with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle.

The Ababeel missile was last tested in 2023, but its service entry was not announced.

Ahmed, who is now an academic at the Australian National University, told Defense News that Pakistan felt compelled “to demonstrate that it had the credibility and resolve to deter crisis and first-strike instabilities in South Asia.”

He anticipates tests of India’s K-5 and K-6 MIRV-equipped, submarine-launched ballistic missiles “will spur further development of the Ababeel as a series of canisterized and longer-range versions that could carry heavier payloads for possible deployment on submarines in the future, for achieving greater survivability and operational flexibility that covers all possible targets in India.”

He noted this year there seems to be more nuclear-capable missiles on display, and Ababeel and its future developments have “become central to maintain a credible and dynamic full-spectrum deterrent.”

Future fighter

Pakistan’s PFX Program announcement came as a surprise, given existing plans to acquire the Chinese J-31 jet and the country’s involvement in the Turkish Kaan figther aircraft program. A previous fifth-generation program, dubbed Project Azm, seems to have been quietly shelved.

Design work is underway for the PFX Program, but little other detail is known.

However, Trevor Taylor, who leads the RUSI think tank’s Defence, Industries and Society Programme, said Pakistan’s decision is in line with other programs in India and richer Indo-Pacific states.

Indeed, the costs “would be high, and judging from the experience of others, the development time would be extensive,” Taylor told Defense News. He added there’s a likelihood Pakistan will import key subsystems such as engines, radars and other avionics for the PFX Program.

Analyst and former Pakistan Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail agreed. “How the cost of such a platform would be kept within affordable limits would be a challenge and would depend on the export potential of the PFX,” he told Defense News.

Importantly, the extent of help from China “would be a key factor,” Taylor noted, and “a basic issue that would have to be addressed would be reconciling an ability to carry weapons with low radar observability.”

Cooperation appears certain, with Turkey as one option, according to aerospace expert Doug Barrie at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. Alongside the PFX Program, he cited Pakistan’s February announcement to team up with Turkey to develop a beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile.

However, he said, “given the very close defense aerospace ties between Pakistan and China, I wouldn’t discount that either.”

As for its features, Pakistan would likely want the PFX aircraft to “have stealth capability, which should also entail conformal weapons carriage and enough internal fuel,” Tufail said.

“A powerful [active electronically scanned array] radar and [beyond-visual-range] missiles that can outrange the Meteor of the Rafale should also be prime requisites,” he added. “Seamless sensor fusion, alongside comprehensive [electronic counter-countermeasures] capability, would be equally important.”

Fatah family

Pakistan’s announcement of the Fatah 3 and Fatah 4 weapons indicates the government continues to develop systems to “both enable greater precision firepower from deep within the country against Indian front-line targets, and similar reach into valuable Indian rear-area bases and systems from Pakistani border areas,” according to Frank O’Donnell, a nonresident fellow with the Stimson Center think tank’s South Asia Program.

By focusing on the offensive capabilities of multiple launch rocket systems and drones, Pakistan is able to free up its Air Force from strike missions to higher-level air-to-air combat roles, O’Donnell said, citing the parade commentator who stated the Fatah 2 “can evade any enemy air defense system.”

This “underlines how Pakistan is continuing to implement lessons from the Russia-Ukraine and Azerbaijan-Armenia wars,” he added. Both of those conflicts have featured the heavy use of combat drones.

And notably, he said, “sophisticated Russian air and missile defense systems — such as the Russian S-400, which India is deploying against Pakistan — are still vulnerable to asymmetric missile barrages and drone strikes.”

Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.

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